Why Measurements of Progress Fail in Afghanistan and What Lessons Theatre Offers Western Donors

One Guardian article on 3rd July 2013 states: “West demands more progress from Afghanistan in return for aid”. It seems to be a reasonable request: if the donors in the west had funded development and peace projects in Afghanistan, signs of improvement must correspond and match dollar-for-dollar.

Screen Shot_Guardian_3July2013

In the first three paragraphs, journalist Emma Graham-Harrison writes:

After years of lavish spending in support of the now-waning military mission in Afghanistan, the west on Wednesday embarked on an attempt to reset its relationship with Kabul, demanding measurable progress in return for aid cash.

Afghanistan has been promised around $8bn (£5.2bn) a year in military and development spending after foreign troops leave in 2014. But Nato governments say the aid money comes with strings attached.

A meeting on Wednesday in the Afghan capital aimed to be the first step in this “paradigm shift”, grading the country on progress towards goals agreed last year in Tokyo.

I am most distressed by her choice of words: “the west”… “demanding measurable progress…”. A demand — unlike a request or compromise —  is a unidirectional top-down approach that masks the power differentials in the relationship between the one who gives money and the one who receives. What are the donors expecting? According to one western diplomat in the article, they are “[f]aster progress with reforms, tackling corruption and especially ensuring credible elections”.

First of all, one wonders how and what measures of progress are put in place when donors give funding to aid agencies and NGOs. From my experience of writing grants and proposals for a local peacebuilding NGO in Kabul, RFPs (Requests for Proposals) are sent out and the more capable NGOs (usually those who are able to hire expats who could write legibly and coherently) then submit their own proposals in their bid to win these “contracts”. This is a normal procedure even in businesses around the world, from construction to development. But like all paper submissions, an NGO can boost up its credentials, have impressive programming, as well as sound M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation) practices to track progress — all for the sake of competing for the same aid money, a bowl of diminishing goodies spread amongst many beneficiaries, albeit unequally. But what do donors do, except the occasional tracking through quarterly reports by the NGO who had won the bid? Do they get into the development projects and propose better ways of managing and measuring? Not really. They only perform site-visits occasionally, except that this foreman has no technical know-how to get things done better.

To me, that’s not a good enough model of intervention from the donors. Donors cannot act as a dispenser of funds, arbiter of good and bad proposals, and then let the aid agencies do as they had proposed. Many of these proposals, like I said, are written by a dedicated team of researchers and writers (myself included), but have just as limited a grounded experience as the donors. Regardless of the numbers of months or years a grant/proposal writer had spent in that conflict zone, his/her understanding of development or peacebuilding projects is still from the outside-in. This is flawed from the outset, but it is the best an NGO can do — since many of the locals cannot even craft a coherent paragraph in English, much less a twenty-two-page document full of citations.

The Guardian article continues to insist that there is going to be a “reset”. In today’s mobile phone technospeak, it means a turning off of operational systems to factory settings, which in turn deletes all the apps, contacts in the address book, schedules in my calendar, messages on Whatsapp or SMS, as well as photos and videos in the gallery folder. All kaput in a second — but not by choice of the user.

The article explains this “paradigm shift” that is needed by the Afghans:

“There is a paradigm shift underway in our relationship with Afghanistan and it is critical everyone is aware of that,” said a western official. “It’s about teaching Afghans to readjust themselves, as the times of complacency are gone.”

Teaching Afghans to readjust themselves? To erase everything to factory settings? To delete their past and reboot with a new operating system?

This reeks of high moral superiority, a neocolonial imposition of western values detrimental to the local ways of doing things. Without an attempt to understand the complexities on the ground, the ones who are complacent are the donors. Afghanistan is not a tabula rasa, a blank slate where celebrities imprint their hands on cemented floors in Hollywood. The west cannot reset the buttons of Afghan culture and politics, even if they have been  inundated by pockets of violence and corruption throughout history. The west must stop seeing itself as their saviour. This performance of redemption is not only grossly unethical, but alarmingly dangerous. It has innumerable repercussions on the enactment of more violence on the global stage. If donors understand their roles as social actors (in theatre-lingo, not as “directors” but “audiences“), perhaps the type and degree of intervention in Afghanistan would materialise differently.

Allow me to take an article in my local papers, The Straits Times, to illustrate the role of an “audience” in a Yo-Yo Ma concert.

[…] For Lance Cpl Donley, who had locked himself away upon his return from Afghanistan, performing with Ma has been part of a long journey back to life, one without the career he planned or the family he hoped to have.

At times, he thought he could not go on and resisted the extended hand of professional musicians who wanted to help. After many pleas, he finally said “yes”, began voice lessons, and his despair began to lift.

[…] There is still a lot of pain in Lance Cpl Donley’s life. But today he feels richer than any Davos Man: “I’m a 21-year-old kid on stage with Yo-Yo Ma, right? How much better does it get?”

When the music stopped, there was a pause as the audience swallowed its tears, and then a standing ovation — for Lance Cpl Donley for thriving, for Ma for playing, and for themselves for having the good fortune to witness a moment of such unexpected joy.

The Straits Times 04 July 2013 (Singapore)

There is a performance, a paying audience, and a fractured man on stage. The writer, Margaret Carlson, is the paying audience. The disabled soldier, Timothy Donley, is the actor. The guest musician, Yo-Yo Ma, is also a performer, but here sidelined as co-actor. The article primarily focused on the “development” of Donley, his emotional growth and his coming to terms with a painful traumatic past in Afghanistan — through the therapeutic power of the arts.

The parallels are obvious.

What donors can learn from this example is to reset their own paradigm, and see themselves not as a “director” of Afghan politics, but a “paying audience“. The Afghans themselves, including the Cabinet, are their own directors and should never be relegated to positions of subalterity and subservience. With the local Afghans directing and enacting their own play, they become their own institution transmitting cultural values that can help themselves to grow. LCP Henley allowed Yo-Yo Ma and other musicians to aid in his own growth, but he took it upon himself to go where he needed to go — to heal. Writer Margaret Carlson understood that. She recognised herself as a paying audience and allowed Henley to shine on stage. When will the donors in the west recognise something so elemental, yet so humane, as this?

Money talks. Yes.

But if the West wants to direct the play, make sure officials and diplomats fall down on their knees, roll around and get dirty with the rehearsal process. If not, stand in the sidelines and applaud the show, no matter how incongruous or incomprehensible the plot becomes. Really, you are merely a paying audience. Nothing more in this performance of Afghan politics.